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United Airlines traces its ancestry back to 1927 when it started as Varney Air Lines. From humble beginnings flying mail for the US Post Office it has evolved into the world’s second largest airline following its merger with Continental in 2010. A 1933 explosion on board a United flight made history as the world’s first ‘terrorist’ attack on an aircraft. The airline experienced a similar loss in 1955 and two of the four 9/11 terrorist flights were United aircraft. United is the only airline to have operated as Air Force One, flying Richard Nixon on a single 1973 flight. United operated as a domestic US carrier until deregulation allowed it to begin international services; it’s first in 1983. United was the launch customer for Boeing’s 767 in 1981 and their 777 in 1997. Iconic rival Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991 and United expanded rapidly to fill their slots. Soon after the 9/11 attacks United filed for bankruptcy protection and has struggled ever since. In 2012 the airline completed its merger with Continental Airlines and used their logo for the joined airlines.
America’s airlines have a reputation for providing an equally poor level of service no matter what carrier on any route. United is typical of this. Staff are generally mature (i.e. old) and usually have a jaded attitude and are totally lacking in enthusiasm. Female flight attendants are dressed like Nanna. Interiors are drab, planes are generally old and if you are lucky service is indifferent, but more often service will be poor.
As a domestic carrier United has an extensive network and to and from the US they fly most popular routes. In an around North America is covered extensively. However United still believes in hubbing so many flights may require a transit stop, often at the world’s busiest airport Chicago, which has the added risk of your baggage failing to make the connecting flight. The airline has a reputation for leaving bags behind so its a good idea to take out Travel Insurance if you are travelling through a hub.
Most of America’s airlines have recently emerged from bankruptcy protection. Their lack of profits stem from the fact airfares are too cheap. United is no exception and offers value for money fares both domestically and internationally, however the endless discounting does manifest itself in poor service and exceptionally low pay for its unhappy staff. On longer distance international flights paying a little extra will usually buy you a much better seat on a superior airline.
Domestic flights generally have pay-on-board meals which are typically fattening snacks you would be more likely to want when watching a movie at home. On international flights their catering service is basic at best, even in Business and premium classes. All their meals lack ‘wow’ and show signs of economising. Food is bland and their idea of spice is pepper and salt. Don't expect your coffee cup to be refilled without a snarl.
Most United flights have the older style single large screen at the front to show movies and an audio system. Premium classes have a better system; however their systems are antiquated when compared to competitors. Smaller planes have no entertainment other than their in-flight magazine which resembles a boring catalogue for travel products and holiday destinations. The route map is the most interesting part.
United’s poor quality ground service is legendary. Their ability to ‘lose’ bags profound. Check-in can be a long and unpleasant experience as are the security measures at America’s airports. Transferring passengers who need to hub through one of United’s terminals need two hours between flights to be sure their baggage will be OK. Wherever possible it is best to avoid a transfer and fly direct, even if it means changing the airline.
United’s premium classes are extremely ordinary at best, however all their domestic competition is pretty much as ordinary as they are. On International routes United’s competitors offer a superior product on every leg, usually at a similar price. United’s Red Carpet lounges lack luxury features, can be crowded and typically resemble cafes. Food and drink service in the lounge matches the ordinariness of its other features.
To get from one place to another without fuss or drama is a thing that United does reasonably well. Economy passengers get what they paid for; a reasonably comfortable seat, a generous baggage allowance, possibly a meal, possibly entertainment and flights are generally reasonably punctual. Flying United is generally neither a wonderful or terrible experience.
United is one of the founding members of the Star Alliance and its Mileage Plus frequent flyer scheme is partnered to a considerable number of partner airlines, retailers and traveller related products and services. Mileage points are reasonably easy to redeem and the scheme is very good when compared to others; however the reality remains that points are not worth much. Members perhaps enjoy the recognition that higher tiers of the scheme earns them from the company but only very frequent flyers will get real benefit from joining. Many passengers who vow never to fly United again are seduced back onto the airline through Mileage Plus!
Management has been screwing United’s employees for decades and frontline staff take it out on passengers. The company’s management team have declared war several times on the airlines unions with everyone losing. Their staff are already low paid by international standards and management’s answer seems always to be an attempt to cut back further – wages, meals, cleanliness of aircraft and possibly even aircraft maintenance. Management are to blame for the airlines poor performance more than anyone else but they suffer from an ‘Emperor’s new clothes syndrome’. They are blind to the obvious.
United has an extremely long list of safety and security issues which are not unrelated to attempts to endlessly cut costs. The airline operates one of the world’s largest fleets of aircraft, many of them very old by international standards. Pilots are poorly paid and under considerable pressure from bosses who seem to enjoy threatening them with dismissal. It seems hard to believe this does not affect the airlines safety performance. Weather conditions especially in North America’s harsh winters also play a part in the airlines safety record.
United is an extremely ordinary airline in every way and shows signs of financial stress.
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